La Tavola

La Tavola offers such dishes as Canestrelli, Cozze e Vongole Piccole Tecio, foreground, Caraccio di Salmone e Arugula, left, and Spaghetti Neri al Granchio. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun / August 21, 2010)

Maybe because it's not on Little Italy's main street, La Tavola always tends to get overlooked. It shouldn't be, though, and I know people who swear by it. It is an easy restaurant to get to know, with a straightforward menu and a notably accommodating staff, the kind of empathetic servers who anticipate your concerns and questions.

The food is carefully prepared and simply presented, without flamboyance or artiness. La Tavola's strongest suit is its lineup of pasta dishes, a few of which can compete for top ranking in or out of the neighborhood. I'm thinking now of the linguine with Taleggio and fresh ground truffles, and the Fettuccine alla Romana, fresh green and white noodles with shredded prosciutto, shallots, mushroom and sweet peas. Actually, I'm thinking of them pretty much all the time.

The owner and executive chef is Carlo Vignotto, who says on La Tavola's website that he believes "the only way to prepare any creation is to be a perfectionist and select only the freshest ingredients from beginning to end — home grown herbs, fresh fish and meats from the market, homemade pasta." More often than not, this philosophy comes through on the plate.

Appetizers are divided into Antipasti Freddi (cold) and Antipasti Caldi (warm) categories. On the surface, it's a modest selection of typical fare — carpaccio, fried calamari, sauteed littleneck clams. But when these dishes arrive at the table, you begin to understand the modest approach La Tavola takes with its cuisine: Do it simply, do it fresh and do it right.

So an antipasto platter here is not painterly or precious, just a generous serving of good meats, fresh cheeses and smartly selected peppers, and La Tavola's version of the classic caprese salad is a simple stacking of luscious, bone-white buffalo mozzarella, roasted peppers and sliced yellow tomatoes, all perked up with a touch of pesto.

The two soups we tried were less convincing. They're skippable. La Tavola's everyday minestrone, a nearly clear broth with what look like steamed vegetables, comes across as spa cuisine (possibly it's a regional take on what is a heartier soup elsewhere), and a soup of the day, something with broccoli and potatoes, was disappointingly bland.

Move on instead to a pasta course. All of La Tavola's fresh pastas are available in half sizes, which still managed to fill up diners at our table with smaller appetites. La Tavola is not shy about using butter and cream, and that fettuccine dish with the prosciutto and peas, so prettily tossed with white and green fettuccine, is uncompromisingly rich.

The pasta with truffles was similarly so, and both of these dishes were fought over. The noodles themselves offer up that toothsome al dente pleasure that lovers of fresh pasta seek out. There was less enthusiasm for La Tavola's chunked-tomato version of the classic puttanesca, which was too stingy with capers, olives, anchovies, namely everything that gives a puttanesca dish a nice, flavorful bite.

Of course, you could have one of these, or a dozen other pasta dishes, as your main meal, but a few of the restaurant's traditional main plates make the pasta-as-intermezzo worth considering. Some of these involve pasta, too. The veal saltimbocca is a good example of La Tavola's sure way with a classic preparation, everything pounded, sliced, cooked and sliced with absolute confidence. However, the plated sides here — whipped potatoes and sauteed vegetables — were, in contrast, an example of too little consideration.

A scallops entree had a similar effect. Impressively sized beauties, the scallops were grilled expertly and treated wisely with a delicately herbed lemon sauce. The scallops are set in a shell-shaped dish, which itself is set on a plate holding nothing more than salad greens. It's just a little awkward, or at least unimpressive. (It made us want to double-check the entree's price.)

The casserole-style eggplant Parmesan is an outstanding meatless version, with all of the cheesy and hearty warmth the dish should have. An entree-size seafood pasta dish is yet another great example of how close to perfection La Tavola comes when it's working in a classic repertoire. When the sauce is good, the pasta is fresh, and the clams, mussels, scallops and shrimp are well looked after, a dish doesn't need anything more.

Dessert is homemade here. The seldom-seen sabbiosa, otherwise known as "sandy cake," is about the most delicate choice. We enjoyed it, but we went for broke to boot with the tartufo al cioccolato, one of those big mounds of chocolate-topped gelati that everyone pretends to be mortified by when it's put on the table and then proceeds to demolish with pleasure.

I want to reiterate how wonderful the pastas are here, and praise the staff's esprit de corps. Whether all of this combines for you into a pleasurable and satisfying dining experience will likely depend on how you feel about La Tavola's single, square-shaped, semiformal dining room. And that might depend on what time of day you find yourself there. I think its furnishings can look dated and dowdy at 6 o'clock and warm and romantic a few hours later. It's like Teri Hatcher says: "It's LIGHTING."

La Tavola

Where: 248 Albemarle St., Little Italy

Contact: 410-685-1859

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Appetizers: $7.50-$18.50

Entrees: $14.95-$23.95

Food: ✭✭✭

Service: ✭✭✭

Atmosphere: ✭✭1/2

[Key: ✭✭✭✭: Outstanding; ✭✭✭: Good; ✭✭: Fair or Uneven; ✭: Poor]